Center on Sentencing and Corrections

Patterns of disturbed behavior in a supermax population

Patterns of disturbed behavior in a supermax population

David Lovell, “Patterns of disturbed behavior in a supermax population,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 35, no. 8 (2008), 985-1004 

This study analyzes results from a systematic survey of 131 incarcerated people in supermax prisons in Washington State. Information obtained about the residents’ mental health, as well as indications of “disturbed” behavior (including documented serious mental illness, forms of psychotic behavior, self-injury, and brain damage), indicate that 45% of incarcerated people in supermax prisons suffer from a serious mental illness. The study defines mental illness as a “major mental disorder that substantially impairs functioning and requires continuing treatment.” 

Lovell describes how the prevalence of disturbed behavior is likely attributed to the dismal conditions of supermax prisons, in which incarcerated people are essentially in isolation, or restrictive housing. The long-term confinement and social deprivation experienced in this setting can be expected to induce behavior classified as “disturbed” such as suspicion, hostility, anxiety, tension, and depression. This report illustrates examples of incarcerated people included in the study to explain how their behaviors and conditions manifest, how the conditions of supermax prisons impact their behavior and mental health, and how these issues may be addressed through a more rigorous placement process in correctional facilities. Lovell asserts that the decision to assign someone to a supermax facility must be individualized, preventive, and selective to ensure that institutional policy recognizes these harmful effects of restrictive housing especially for those with a serious mental illness. 

Click here to read the study.

Keywords: supermax, restrictive housing, isolation, serious mental illness, mental health, disturbed behavior, solitary confinement.